“He likes it! Hey Mikey!”
When it first debuted, there wasn’t anything particularly notable about Life cereal. Containing little squares of whole grain oats, it sold fairly well as a healthy alternative within a vast sea of sugar-laden breakfast foods. Kids might never have noticed it all, were it not for a very notable moppet named Mikey who was a profoundly picky eater. Thanks to him, and the power of television advertising, Life would eventually earn a place in pop culture history.
Quaker Oats introduced Life in 1962, and hired Dick York (of Bewitched fame) to serve as their television spokesman. We’re sure he did a fine job but his work was completely overshadowed, thanks to a little kid named Mikey, who would eventually help launch product sales into the stratosphere.
Mikey, played by actor John Gilchrist, was the typical picky eater who hated everything. He is presented a bowl of healthy Life cereal by a pair of siblings (we assume), likely as a friendly taunt. To their utter amazement, Mikey dives in with uncharacteristic gusto, devouring scoopfuls of the little oat squares The bystanders exclaim, “He likes it! Hey Mikey!” – and if Mikey liked it, surely your kid would as well.
The enormously popular advertising campaign ran well over a decade, making Mikey a household name. Years later, in the 80s, the company decided to put the pictures of regular kids on the box, and conducted a nationwide search for the “next Mikey.”
People started wondering what happened to the original Mikey, which led to one of the more-imaginative urban legends of all time – the infamous Pop Rocks death. While there were many incarnations, the most common version went something like this:
“Did you hear about the kid that played Mikey in those cereal commercials? Yeah, he ate a bunch of Pop Pocks while drinking soda and it killed him! Made his stomach explode or something.”
Truth be told, John Gilchrist and his gastrointestinal tract were both doing just fine, but he saw no compelling reason to publicly deny the rumors. Finally in 2000, Life resurrected Mikey in a new ad campaign, as a full-grown adult. This time around, they used a different actor to portray him.
Breakfast cereals come and go, but Life perseveres. New versions were introduced over the years, with Cinnamon Life the first out of the gate in 1978. Raisin Life, Honey Graham Life, Life Vanilla Yogurt Crunch and Life Chocolate Oat Crunch followed. Cinnamon Life sells quite well to this day, while the others reside in the extinct foods graveyard. The original is still the best-seller, primarily because a pint-sized picky eater earned the trust of a nation. The power of television indeed.
If you grew up eating Life cereal, or if you remember hearing those insidious exploding stomach rumors about our pal Mikey, we hope you’ll share your recollections in our comments section.